The Idea of Being a Republican

June 26, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- In another era, a common political species was the yellow-dog Democrat. These were the true party faithful, who'd vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote for a Republican. This species, like the snail darter or furbish lousewort, is endangered now.

When yellow-dog Democrats were still plentiful, they made campaigning easy for candidates of both parties. Democratic candidates could take the yellow-dog precincts for granted and concentrate their energies elsewhere. Republican candidates knew those precincts were hopeless, and didn't waste time or money there.

The yellow-dog Democrats tended to be white working people. In the South, many of them were rural. In the North, they were likely to be urban -- typically union members or Americans with a strong ethnic tradition, or both.

Maryland had plenty of both types, and they weren't only found in cities or on farms. Havre de Grace has been staunchly yellow-dog over the years, though the tradition is waning here too.

Why did all this change? Because in politics as in life, everything changes. People die and new people with new ideas take their places. Most of the children of the yellow-dog Democrat farmers left the farms; the ones that stayed started reading the Wall Street Journal and talking about ''agribusiness.'' The yellow-dog unionists retired to the suburbs, where their children, though still Democrats, started to vote regularly for Republicans.

And with the gradual demographic changes, the party changed too. Today's Democratic Party still has a loyal core, but it doesn't much resemble the loyal core of a generation ago. Its members are likely to be products of elite universities, or African-Americans, or on the public payroll in some capacity, or devoted to some special cause on which they wish the government to smile.

These people may be the heirs of the old yellow-dog Democrats, but they wouldn't want to hear themselves described by such an undignified term. In fact, if someone did call them that they'd probably sue.

There's another kind of Democrat becoming increasingly prominent today, and likely to have an impact on the election results for years to come. These are yellow-flag Democrats. They've been standing trackside for years, waving caution flags at their party as it roars by, but until recently nobody paid any attention to them.

Yellow-flag Democrats are everywhere in Maryland. I meet them in the post office, the feed store, the barber shop, even at the mall. Here are a couple of them: John and Mary Kompozit.

The Kompozits have always been registered Democrats. For one thing, local politics in Maryland is heavily Democratic, and if you don't belong to the party, you don't have anything to say about the candidates it selects. But the Kompozits didn't pick their party for purely practical reasons. There was an emotional aspect too, something to do with their image of themselves. They've never liked the idea of being Republicans.

Voting Republican is one thing to John and Mary, but registering Republican is something quite different. They've often voted for Republican candidates when they thought the Republican was better than the alternative, and did so without regrets. Blind party loyalty is irrational, they agree.

But they've just felt more comfortable as Democrats.

When they were in college, the Democrats stood for civil rights, and the Kompozits found it unconscionable that the law would make distinctions between Americans on the basis of race. It was the defining political issue of their youth. And the Republicans seemed to be, if not exactly on the wrong side, then cravenly standing aside.

Over the years, disillusion about their party set in. It started in 1972 with George McGovern, then subsided a little as Watergate swallowed Richard Nixon. The Kompozits voted for Jimmy Carter, then wished they hadn't. They both voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984; John was enthusiastic about Reagan, Mary a little nervous, fearing he might get the country into a war with the Russians.

Their clear choice in 1988 was George Bush. In 1992 John, disgusted, voted for Ross Perot. Mary told herself she wasn't going to vote for anyone and then, at the last minute, held her breath and voted for Bill Clinton. She is not happy today that she did so.

In Maryland, meanwhile, the Kompozits remained Democrats, albeit unhappy ones. In the primaries, they have found themselves increasingly voting against Democratic incumbents, and voting for Republicans in November. Sometimes they think they should change their registration, but then they remember their youth, and how their party led the fight against laws that were truly evil, and put it off.

On the other hand their children (they have 2.3 of them) have registered Republican. The Democrats, they tell their middle-aged parents with all the certainty of the young, are the party that bends the law to benefit the privileged few. That's wrong, they say. It's corrupt, it's evil, and it must be changed. And the senior Kompozits have to agree that the kids have a point.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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